Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Ten clues that I am just me (I was going to say international, not just British, not Scandinavian, but actually I meant, just me)

1. I am happy in a climate that is HOT, and under skies that are BRIGHT, and clear, and blue. I stayed away from Britain all those years partly because the climate was so miserable. I'm not sure what happened two years ago ..

2. I am very polite, and will always try to be pleasant to people, and the more so if they are polite to me, regardless of what their social status is. This is because (a) in a country where life is hard it is what people do to survive - it is a kind of deliberate counterfactuality - and (b) bad manners just make people repulsive.

3. I like to laugh, and like to make people laugh, and I think it is very important to see most things as absurd, most of the time. (Because they are.)

4. I am extremely eccentric. I spent much of my life getting here, and I am damned if I am going to damp myself down for pathetic types who get scared looking outside their hobbit holes. The people who speak my language are all equally eccentric or more, and in fact the non-existence of this on these northern shores is one of my chief complaints.

5. I love to read, and I love to learn, which I regard as a beautiful thing. And I regard education as the greatest excitement and its own great reward, not as something cruel to spare children from.

6. I am getting increasingly intolerant of food which doesn't have strong spice in it. I like strong clear flavours, and I've started putting chili in my tea.

7. I just want to eat prawns all the time.

8. I like to be silly, and think silliness is one of the greatest virtues. When you are being silly you are both not taking yourself seriously, which is good for the world, and being very serious about what is important.

9. I don't believe in cultural relativism. Having lived in two, no my god three cultures (British, Egyptian Arab, Danskie), it's clear to me that some things in some cultures are a hell of a lot better than others. Won't go into details in public, though. I get into a lot of trouble. We had freedom of speech in Cairo. We don't here.

10. Having learned how to be friends late in life after a miserable childhood and early life, making and being friends is something I really love to do and miss, dreadfully, here. I am a warm person and love to connect to people. When people blank me out, I retreat into a sort of internal exile to avoid misery. I hope I don't forget how to make friends living in Denmark.

And 11. Having lived in the South for years and years, and found it infinitely more fun and more enriching than the West, I know that real life can involve so much more, and so much more intensity, than the modern Western way of life. Which is a kind of dreadful poverty.

So there.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

It's Europe, not just Denmark

I am getting some perspective shift as I think to and fro about living here in Denmark. Undeniably, settling in here is really difficult for people from outside, and I call them / us ‘internationals’ because ‘foreigners’ as used locally is a word that just means, ‘people we don’t want.’ (Denmark, fix yourself.) Living here as an international is very difficult to crack socially, hard to manage (let’s face it) materially, and often full of hurts, small and large. But although Denmark is more inward-looking, more peripheral and socially deader than other European countries, I think it’s very unlikely that settling in any European country, including Britain and France, would be what one might call easy. It might be easier to make friends, but I’m sure that in every case, most of one’s friends would be other internationals.

My point is that I think these European societies are very dense and settled and unused to change, and that this makes them hard to get inside. Whereas this does not seem to be true of the US. Families don’t stay in the same place, everyone moves around the country, there is extreme social mobility, all the nineteenth- and twentieth-century immigration melting-pot thing, and a second-generation American is president. There are big cities, lots of subcultures all over the place, MOVEMENT.

There are various other places in the world that are genuinely international, multicultural. Cairo is one. Hong Kong. Bombay. Delhi? Don’t know. Jakarta? Writer, tell me. Singapore, certainly. Shanghai maybe. Rio. Buenos Aires. Those are a bit different. It’s not that they’re rich melting-pot countries to which people came from all over. These are all cities that were colonized by foreign elites, multiple times over, not just the British. Cairo, for example, was run by foreign elites without a break from 330BC to 1952, that’s more than 2,000 years. Makes you a bit more open to outsiders. Also, all these cities (don’t know about Rio) were always on major trade routes, and are still major international crossroads. (Scandinavia? Are we joking?)

Anyway. In these places it is easy to live as an international, and not just for people who are jetted in by oil companies. I turned up in Cairo on my own with nothing but my education, and did fine.

But why *would* it be easy to settle in Europe? I think that we, for one (meaning me and my family), made a big mistake in our thinking coming here. We are white, English, privileged (though I hate that word and have done my time to work it off), educated at the best universities in the world. We don’t get the racism that is flying around here, but we get the xenophobia and the intense resistance to anything from outside.

In my spouse’s field, Muslims in Europe, it is apparent that second- and later-generation Muslims in Europe do not prosper. Very few manage to achieve a decent education; they become dissatisfied, they turn to the counterculture and they get networked into radicalism. Yes, it’s a worse starting situation in Europe because European Muslims are not skilled and educated (those go to the US). But the only niche they can find is at the bottom, and surprise, surprise, they are not happy. Well, I think this doesn’t only apply to asylum-seekers.

I too wanted to try living in different places around the world. I did it for fifteen years, extremely happily, in Cairo. But I think in coming to Europe we have all come to the wrong place.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

To laugh

If you have five minutes, here is a kind of humour that I love and isn't much in evidence in the rational North. This is a vignette of (yes, you guessed it, Cairo) life written as a series of imaginary taxi journeys across town. They’re in a book called Taxi, by Khaled al Khamissi, which a friend gave me this summer. (Maybe I'm just weird.)


I was on my way to Heliopolis [distant 'burb] where I had an important appointment at the Armed Forces public relations department to get permission to film in front of the podium where President Anwar Sadat was assassinated back in 1981. The appointment had been arranged a long time before and I did not want to be late, so I went at least half an hour early.

I took a taxi from Dokki [downtown] and we took the Sixth of October bridge. The traffic was heavy as usual but I was feeling smug about the way I'd planned it. By about the time I had expected to be there, we had reached Salah Salem Street [a notorious blockage], and as we approached the exhibition ground the traffic came to a complete standstill. I wasn't very worried but the waiting dragged on and the minutes passed slowly and we started to ask the cars nearby what the reason was. They told us that President Mubarak was making an excursion. [They close the streets when this happens.] Okay, I thought, may he arrive safely, and in a few more minutes the road would clear.

We stayed sitting in the car, which by some magical power had been transformed into a mere rock squatting in the middle of the road, unable to move a fraction of an inch, even if Hercules had been pushing. After we'd been waiting close to an hour, I decided to pay the driver the fare and get out and walk, for no doubt, I thought, walking would be better than sitting. As soon as I started to get out, a police officer approached me and prevented me from getting out.

"What do you mean?" I said.

"It's forbidden, sir," he said. "You have to stay in the car."

"What do you mean? This is a street and I want to walk in the street," I said.

"It's forbidden, sir. Get back in the car."

I got in the taxi dejectedly and the driver laughed. "You mean you wanted to leave me in this mess! See what God does," he said.

"I was trying to make my appointment," I said.

"Forget that. This is one big jam. Once I was stuck here for four hours without moving."

"Oh my God, four hours!"

"That day I got out of here, took the car back to the owner, paid him everything I had on me and told him 'Never mind, I'll give you the rest tomorrow.' I went home and by God we all went to bed without dinner. My wife and kids had been waiting for dinner, like, all day long, and I came home empty-handed. My wife cried and put the kids to bed. I stayed by the window listening to the Koran to calm down."

"So what are you going to do today?" I asked.

"That depends on you. You could compensate me for however many hours we get stranded here."

"So that whole story was so that I’ll pay you for today?"

"No, I swear on the Holy Koran. What I’m telling you is the honest truth, and if you don’t want to pay more than you’ve paid that’s okay by me. But stay with me to pass the time of day."

We sat for three hours, passing the time of day. He told me how he once loved Cairo with a passion, then he began to like it, then he began to have conflicting feelings about it, then he disliked it and now he loathed it.

In the end he told me about 20 jokes and I told him just as many back. Unfortunately I can’t tell you them because any one of them would be enough to send me to prison for slander, although I don’t see why I should go to prison because of jokes which most Egyptians know and which they circulate and laugh at daily.

Since I naturally do not want to be jailed, suffice it to say that we laughed a lot, even if I did not make my appointment. Since then I’ll never feel smug like that again.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Denmark blues

One of the few things I really can blame Denmark for in good conscience is people's staggering parochialism. Laila, my 12-year-old, has a school camping trip in two weeks down in the woods near Norsminde, and they need parents to cycle out with them as there is a whole class' worth of over-excited Lottes and Henriks to keep in the right place on the road. And I thought I wouldn't really be able to offer because I am just too strange for those little Henriks and Lottes to accept and that it would create an awkwardness and make Laila feel bad, despite the fact that all the girls have come to our house for birthdays and slept over and met me. And I checked with Laila and I'm right.

What do you-all think about that eh?

A bit of carnivorousness

Now down to what really counts. I am proud to report that Mille, who does go outside, today ATE her catch good and proper. That's a first. She has played around with baby blackbirds, adorable field mice, even a pigeon, but it's always just for a bit of torturing. Today though, under the apple tree we found her eating with bits of bird leg sticking out of her mouth, and all there was left was one leg sticking out of the grass. I was proud. I mean, it's what she's supposed to do. It's like Laila getting the prize for the best Luxor diary. Ooohhh ..

Apart from adoring cats and desperately wanting them to love me, I do really like about cats their complete conviction when they flop out and are pleased with themselves. You should hear the beast purring away on Lina's bed. As if it was only put there for her (and of course it was flat-pack Ilva, June).

Strange customs

I am a little bemused as to the lack of reaction in the Danish press to the videoed police assault on the students last week at the Iraqi asylum-seekers deportation debacle. In Britain once anything so inconvenient as a video is produced, police assault gets investigated and things begin to happen. (Without a video, no they don't, but that is one of the beauties of digital democracy innit.) An officer is facing prosecution for manslaughter for an unprovoked attack on a bystander at the G-20 summit in London in April. He's been suspended. There have also been investigations of two additional cases of police assault on unarmed demonstrators (both women) at the same demonstrations. The files have been passed to the Crown Prosecution Service.

Is unprovoked assault with batons considered okay police crowd control in Denmark? They could have got the students out of the way without batons, could they not.

We take our rights to protest seriously. Don't they care in Denmark?

Friday, 26 June 2009

Public space in DK - der mangler det

To elaborate on something from Paula's blog, Why is poor dear old DK such an un-social space. I've got part of it. There actually is no public social space. No public socializing. People go out and picnic outside en famille a lot, sure, with their picnic boxes, and are incredibly super-active physically and nature-wise, but if you look at what is happening, people never gather to meet new people. You don't see folks socializing in restaurants. There ARE hardly any restaurants. It's all DIY stuff with people who already know each other, make up a defined social group already. To put it another way, there are no fixed, pre-existing points where you go to socialize. It's all freelance.

There you have it. That's why those of us who come from the South culturally (me, for instance) choke so much. There's no social oxygen flowing around.

But rather than dwell on it, I'd rather get on with manufacturing our own social oxygen - and booking as frequent trips abroad as possibly possible.